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I'm going to apply for a Ph.D. position in a nordic country, and as you know, I need my current supervisor recommendation letter.

I asked my supervisor to provide me with a recommendation letter regarding all the researches I have done in his lab. He responds that even though he is more than happy to provide one, but he never provides any recommendation letter directly to a student. Instead, he will only send such a letter to any professor/university who formally asks about one.

The whole process looks problematic to me for many reasons:

  1. I can't ask my new supervisor to ask my old supervisor to ask for a recommendation for me. No supervisor would do such a thing because there is really tough competition between candidates. Most of them already have strong recommendation letters. The only scenario I can think of is when the university itself sends such an email, where there is no such procedure in the case of at least Sweden.

  2. I have to apply via a web form inside the university's website where the application form asks for at least 2 recommendation letters (in PDF format). There is no place in that form for me to add my professor's email.

  3. I didn't see such a process anywhere in at least nordic countries. Almost all my friends received their recommendation letters from their previous professors.

What's the best approach in such a situation?

Edit I'm going to apply for a position in Sweden.

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    Are you applying in the same country? Which country are you and where are you applying? Practices about recommendation letters vary a lot around the world, and not all professors are aware of the differences or accept them. See, for instance, this question: academia.stackexchange.com/q/71429/20058
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Mar 27 '17 at 6:46
  • Are you sure you are required to collect the letter yourself and then send it on to the university where you are applying? If that's the standard procedure there, can't you just tell your supervisor that this is how they want it? Jun 25 at 13:42
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    @Lewian Exactly! Just for the sake of the record: What I finally did was that I contacted my supervisor and explained Sweden's Ph.D. application procedure to him in clear words. He then understood and kindly provided me with a PDF format of the recommendation letter. All it required was merely more clarity and better communication :-) Jun 25 at 13:43
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Having the letter of recommendation (LoR) writer send the LoR directly to the institution to which you are applying is indeed the standard procedure in the English-speaking world and increasingly beyond. In this procedure, the LoR is confidential; only the issuer and the recipient(s) should normally see it.

The process works as follows:

  • Online forms usually have two "sides". The first side is for you, the applicant. You enter the name and email address of your LoR writer, after you have obtained their approval. An email will be sent to the LoR writer with a link to "their" side of the website, to which they can then upload the letter and perhaps additional information.
  • For the offline process, you write your application, and the LoR writer sends in their LoR independently from you before the deadline.

However, in some countries (until recently e.g. in Germany and Austria) a different procedure is used, in which the LoR is handed to the applicant who then submits it together with their application (via website or offline).

I would contact the HR or admissions (whichever is applicable) department at the institution where you are applying and ask for clarification, then talk to your LoR writer again. If the institution explicitly requests that you hand in the letter, you can just relay this information to your supervisor. You may also want to make your supervisor aware of different traditions of LoR writing in different countries. Alternatively, ask the HR/admissions department whether they can accept a LoR directly from your supervisor.

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  • Then why the application form asks for at least 2 recommendation letter? Mar 27 '17 at 7:06
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    @MichelGokan I'm not sure I understand your comment. If online, it will be possible to submit multiple email addresses. If offline, you just repeat the process and mention in your application who will write the LoRs. But from your edits I see that the website asks you to directly upload the LoR. Your supervisor perhaps expects the "American/UK" process described above. To make sure that there is no misunderstanding, I would inquire at the institution where you are applying about the process and then explain to your LoR writer(s) that it's different from what they're used to.
    – henning
    Mar 27 '17 at 7:13
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    Downvoter, please explain so this answer can actually be improved.
    – henning
    Mar 27 '17 at 8:05
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    One minor remark: It might be either the "HR department" or the "Studiensekretariat" or something like that who is responsible. In general, the HR department would deal with employment issues, while the "Studiensekretariat" or similar would deal with issues related to studying/studentship. For a PhD candidate in Germany, both entities might be involved, though "recommendation letters" seem to be distinctly on the side of studying/research (i.e. more related to the "Studiensekretariat") than belonging to the legal/administrative aspects handled by HR. Mar 27 '17 at 10:43
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    Just for the sake of the record: What I finally did was that I contacted my supervisor and explained Sweden's Ph.D. application procedure to him in clear words. He then understood and kindly provided me with a PDF format of the recommendation letter. All it required was merely more clarity and better communication :-) Jun 25 at 13:08

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